Every August, Floridians gas up their boats, air up their tanks, and break out their tickle sticks in preparation for the highly anticipated Lobster Season Opener. While Florida and the rest of the Tropics gear up for their dives, there is no place on Earth like the Florida Keys to dive for this breed of lobster. Families scour to make reservations, haul their boat down south, and prepare their equipment for Mini Season and Opening Day. This year, we were lucky enough to have been invited to join the Ulmer family on their Opening Day Adventures. As we greet the Ulmers, they tell us that rather than take vacation days, they take the entire month of August to rent a house in the Keys. The family brings their Center Console Sea Hunt, and as much Tackle as they can fit inside their Ford F150 Raptor down to Key West to get in on season opener!
The Ulmers and SA Company are both based out of Palm Beach County, Florida. The continental shelf is far closer to shore in our region of the state. This means that in the keys, your boat may miles off shore, but you’ll only be in fifteen feet of water. This is a big part of what makes lobster diving so appealing to families. Lobster diving may be done in deep water, but you can find just as many in the shallows if you’re in good areas! Lobster love rocks and coral where they can hide from grouper, sharks, and other big predators.
Before we knew it, it was 4:00AM and we were boarding the Ulmer’s Sea Hunt eagerly awaiting first light! Keep in mind it’s only August 6th, so they have only been there for a few days. We have very little experience navigating our way through the shallow waters. Marty Ulmer stands on the bow of the boat with a spot light trying to find a path for us to make our way out of. We finally make our way through the channels and underneath one of the many bridges of Overseas Highway. Once we’re clear of the bridge and the rocky shallows, we’re full throttle rushing to make our way to the diving grounds. We find a good spot to drop anchor; we were only in 7′ of water, but the terrain of the ocean floor is so ideal for lobster that the grounds were littered with them! Under every rock, coral head, or bit of debris there were lobster of considerable size and quantity.
The numbers were plentiful simply because of the fact that we’re out on opening day. Lobster Season Closes from March 31st until August 5th. This allows the for the normal practice of mating season to take place. Between the already sexually mature lobster growing larger, the hatch-lings beginning to make their way through their life cycle, and the only pressure on the species, is by their own natural predators.
We snared about half of our bag limit by 11:00AM; Which is perfect, because diving up and down the shallow water column and wrestling with the lobster under the rocks is hard work! We made our way back in to the house to offload our haul and to grab lunch. This is when we got to chat with Rick and Marty about Lobster regulations. In Monroe County (Basically the entire Florida Keys), there is a bag limit of six per person, per boat, per day. The rest of Florida is up to 12 per person, per boat, per day. The Lobsters must be snared, netted, or hand caught. They may not be slung, speared, or knifed. They must measure 3” from Horn to Carapace in order to be considered legal size. Restricted areas must be observed; This typically includes nature preserves, marinas, or on private property. Needless to say, these are some of the most densely populated areas. SA Employee, Noah Robert tells the group a story of Mini Season 2006. In short, Noah took a look under the docks of the marina at the hotel he was staying at only to find so many lobster beneath him that they were stacked up on top of each other and that their backs and heads were washing up out of the water as the waves came and went.
We had a long lunch because we were waiting for the right time to depart. Our plan was to scuba dive a deeper channel during Slack Tide. Slack Tide is a term that refers to the time between the tide changes. This deep channel is notorious for low visibility and ripping currents. Needless to say, these conditions are a huge turn off to many divers. This is what makes this channel an absolute gold mine for the Florida Spiny Lobster. In only two drifts along the floor of the channel, Rick single-handedly met the balance of our daily bag limit. We also shot our daily limit of Hogfish and Red Grouper!
The rest of the night was spent Grilling tails, and sharing stories from our experiences on the water. It goes without saying that our Season Opening Experience was a success!